Friday, March 13, 2015

The Last Time I Actually Cut my Hair - Burmese adventures through boats and sheers

Manly men with manly buns

Taking in the sun setting over the Ayeyarwady River
It’s a funny experience to find yourself in the middle of a fashion trend when your entrance to the world was actually based on laziness. Well, more so, your entrance was actually based on your favorite skateboarder's influence as a kid. Alas, sometimes you are incidentally hip. For those who have experienced said phenomena, this is a time to milk your coolness for as long as it lasts. While I’m definitely enjoying the social repercussions of the man bun rage, as a person who loves to tell travel stories, it’s a great opportunity share the cherished tale of my last haircut.

On a hot and sweaty day in 2012, sometime around September, I decided to cut my hair. At the time, I did not realize this would be a milestone. In fact, it was pretty similar to the day previous and what would inevitably be the next day. That is to say, though, at the time I was traveling via cargo ship down the Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar. My companions at the time were people I had met only days prior. One was German, who I would grow to disdain and bid adieu to with the travel version of an Irish goodbye , and one was Australian, who has grown into a lifelong friend. The stage was set and the floor ready for the most epic haircut tale of all time!

On this particular day, we found ourselves in the small river town known as Bhamo. We had met previously under the spell of a French Canadian traveler who convinced us (with utter ease) to literally hop up off our seats in a guest in Mandalay, and participate in a 24-hour, rickety wooden train ride to the northern most tourist-friendly city known as Myitkyina. He had been entranced by the tales of a beautiful girl from the Maldives reporting on military installments there, and his enthusiasm quickly poured over us. In 2012, only certain places were open to tourists. We had met other travelers who boasted tales of being arrested, leading to hefty transportation fees from their temporary lock up to Yangon to be expelled from the country, only to come back a few months later and attempt the same trip. For us, Myitkyina and a multiple-day boat ride back to Mandalay sounded like as much adventure as we could take. 

The view from the rickety train
After spending a few days trying to retrace our muse's footsteps, the French Canadian was at the end of his visa, and myself, the Aussie, and the horrible German were ready to travel down the river. To get to Bhamo, we somehow ended up on a cargo ship. It was empty besides the crew, us, and a boatload (get it?) of packaged merchandise. With this being a cargo ship, there weren’t extra sleeping compartments, so the three of us staked claim on the main deck, and pooled together our warm clothes and travel blankets to make ourselves cosy. Much like the other days in Myanmar, this experience was one to remember.

When we arrived in Bhamo, we were hoping to only spend a day or two, yet found ourselves caught in the mix for upwards to 4 or 5 days. Bhamo is a sleepy town that boasts two or three possible tourist destinations, but that isn’t what made it so appealing. The feel of the small town, and the ability to rent bikes and explore as far as our legs would take us, was the allure. After finding the only hotel that accepted tourists (a swanky spot with hot showers, a room unlike any we had seen, and a large buffet breakfast) we set out. Through a few days journey we found beautiful temples, a miniature rendition of the Golden Rock/ Kyaiktiyo Pagoda (a holy site for Buddhists, and a horrible tourist trap for visitors), and the most epic, outdoor roller disco in existence. When in town, we also found ourselves dining on delicious Indian food and enjoying both local and western cinema at the charming, make shift 3D movie theater, adorned with lawn chairs and whatever cuisine you wanted to buy on the street before coming in. 

Roller Disco
As our days in Bhamo dwindled, we found ourselves granted one extra due to the fact tourists weren’t actually allowed on cargo ships. While we beat the system once, we would have to wait for the river “cruise” boat with the rest of those heading down stream. This was the day, the fateful day, that I found myself combing the streets for the best salon to get my hair did. Surprisingly, main street in Bhamo was host to multiple salons. Upon inspection, it was obvious the one salon, with all female stylists, stuck out amongst its peers. When I entered, the ladies fell into a giggle fit, unable to accommodate my request for what seemed like minutes. After righting themselves, through an obvious language gap we worked our way to an agreement of a shampooing, a head massage, and a haircut. This is where the fun began.

The session started just was one would expect: I was placed in a reclined seat, where my head was submerged in warm water, followed by a deeply engaging shampoo. But things took a drastic turn as the shampooing came to a close and the head massage began. The previously intoxicating fingers increasingly came more aggressive. The soothing massaging transformed more into poking, which then evolved into pounding, before reaching the crescendo with the masseur seemingly punching me in the side of the head. I started to ponder through right hooks if this was all some joke, or that the stylist came to the conclusion this would be her only chance to clock a foreigner. Alas, after a few jabs, I was no longer reclined and was receiving what would only turn out to be a pretty solid haircut. As I paid, it became apparent the giggle fit earlier encountered was due to the fact that men cut men’s hair in Bhamo, and women cut women’s. The stylists had never cut the hair of the opposite sex, and maybe the masseur also assumed that males enjoyed being bombarded with blows to the head as a form of massage. As it seemed to give the women a laugh, though, I left feeling only slightly embarrassed and silly…

While my haircut in Bhamo was one to remember for many reasons, this story always reminds how great life is if you chose to revel in the little things. Not everyday is going to be a milestone, but if we chose to live like it is, life seems just a bit more celebratory. 

Photos courtesy of US Magazine and author

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